Sir Walter Scott’s “Quentin Durward”

September 2, 2015

I was still in my childhood when I read my first historical romance. It made such an impression on me that I searched out more. By my mid-teens, historical romances had become an integral part of my yearly batch of must-read books

Early on, I stumbled onto my first Sir Walter Scott novel—I’ve been hooked on Scott ever since. So much so that I have concluded that our 44th book selection must be one of Scott’s historical novels.

Margaret Drabble, in her monumental The Oxford Companion to English Literature, declares that Sir Walter Scott’s (1771 – 1832) “influence as a novelist was incalculable; he established the form of the historical novel, and according to V. S. Pritchett, the form of the short story. He was avidly read and imitated throughout the 19th century, not only by historical novelists such as Ainsworth and Bulwer-Lytton, but also by writers such as Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and many others, who treated rural themes, contemporary peasant life, regional speech, etc., in a matter that owed much to Scott.”

Early on, impressed no little by Goethe’s romantic German poetry, Scott wrote romantic poetry that celebrated his native land of Scotland. His greatest successes being works such as Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), and Lady of the Lake (1810).

Then he turned to a new genre: historical novels. Of which two centuries of devoted readers have reveled in romances such as Waverly (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Ivanhoe (1819), Kenilworth (1821), and Quentin Durward (1823).


I am choosing Quentin Durward first on the assumption that many of our readers will already have read the ever-popular Ivanhoe. There is something about Quentin Durward that so resonated in my mind many years ago that I have been unable to forget it.

The lead characters include Quentin Durward (a young Scottish adventurer, in France searching for action). He more than finds it!
La Balafré (Durward’s maternal uncle).
Isabelle, Countess of Croye.
King Louis XI of France (a Machiavellian pragmatist).
Charles, Duke of Burgundy (hasty and pugnacious).

The time: 1468.
The setting: France and Flanders.

Bear in mind that the action may seem slow at first; but, before long you’ll find it increasingly hard to put the book down. Surprisingly, you’ll discover that Scott’s portrayals of King Louis and Duke Charles seem modern in that their ethical behavior appears almost distressingly contemporary to readers of our time.

Also, it quickly becomes obvious that royal and aristocratic marriages back then had precious little to do with love; in that respect, both women and men were merely dynastic pawns.

Welcome to the anything-but-calm 15th century.

* * *

There are a multitude of editions to choose from, but I heartily recommend a hardback with color plates such as the Dodd, Mead (New York) edition of 1924 which sports 16 color illustrations by Percy Tarrant.